Even if you’re not into triathlon, you’ve probably heard of the IRONMAN World Championship, held each year in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. But what made the event—and IRONMAN—such a household name to begin with?
We’re not talking obvious things like staying organized or keeping your events consistent. We’re talking about those extra-mile initiatives that make it arguably the most well-known endurance event in the world.
Every person you talk to that has raced in or even merely been to an IRONMAN mentions the volunteers. “IRONMAN could be compared to a five-star hotel of races, a Michelin restaurant of races,” two-time IRONMAN World Championship finisher Rochelle Arko says.
It sounds cliché, but the volunteers at any given IRONMAN race are like a well-oiled machine. They are extensively briefed, know their job on race day back to front and do it well to boot. Plus, they’re everywhere. Whether it’s helping athletes out of the water after the swim, taking their bike coming into T2, providing aid on course or wrapping a towel around their shoulders and helping them to the medical tent after finishing-they do it all!
“They’re basically doing everything they can for you, and you don’t even have to ask for help,” Arko says. “I remember the next day thinking, ‘What is the deal with these volunteers? They’re so amazing.’”
So what does make them so great? IRONMAN volunteers have likely been around the sport for a while and know the effort and guts it takes to race 140.6 miles on the swim-bike-run. They appreciate the hard work that goes into such a feat and want to do anything they can to help support the athletes and their goals. They might even be IRONMAN athletes themselves, having experienced the support in another race and deciding to give back as well.
It was said multiple times at the 2019 Kona event that these volunteers not only travel from all over the world to help out, but specifically make the event their yearly vacation. Now that’s dedication.
The triathlon community and the type of people it attracts plays a big role in the volunteer support as well. In very few other athletic competitions will you see athletes supporting each other, a lot of the times complete strangers, out on the course. It’s that community feel that spreads into the race organizers and volunteers themselves that makes IRONMAN and triathlon in general so unique.
“IRONMAN is just a community,” Arko says. “It’s not that you don’t find that other places, but that ‘anything is possible’ belief and mindset drives us all as one.”
We talked about it extensively in our piece “7 Social Media Takeaways From the IRONMAN World Championship for Race Directors,” but there’s more to how IRONMAN excels at social media than the content it posts.
“Typically if I sign up for a race, I join the Facebook group,” IRONMAN World Championship participant Remi Williamson says.
Creating specific groups for specific races can help forge that sense of community, providing a place for the athletes who are all working toward the same goal to share insights, training tips, gear advice and more in the lead up to the race.
It also helps create a sense of accountability. Triathlon training can be hard and grueling, making you want to quit or skip a day in the saddle or early morning swim. But having that ready-made community for support and extra motivation can be invaluable for an athlete’s success.
You haven’t experienced true energy and passion in sports until you’ve witnessed the finishing chute during the final hour at the IRONMAN World Championship. With more spectators lining the final meters than when the pros came across the line nine hours earlier, music thumping louder than ever and perseverance on full display, you’d be hard pressed to find a dry eye in the house as the final competitors come across the line after nearly 17 hours of hard effort.
In the span of just 10 minutes we saw the first double amputee cross the line in Kona, a man who appeared to be badly injured limp across the line and more athletes in their 60s and 70s than we could count. The true spirit of IRONMAN is on full display, and we dare you to not at least consider signing up for one after witnessing it.
“It is hard for anyone to leave a race not feeling energized and inspired to sign up for the next one, just to be 100 percent a part of the IRONMAN or racing experience,” IRONMAN World Championship finisher Amy Fuhrmann says.
While it may be hard to introduce the passion and inspiration of the IRONMAN finish line to your own race, there are a number of things you can do to recreate the energy. It can be hard to draw participants away from the draw of a comfy hotel bed after a long day of racing, but IRONMAN made sure there were perks worth putting off sleep for, including giveaways from sponsors, heart-thumping music and special guests.
Have your sponsors provide items for volunteers to throw out to fans along the end of the course. This not only keeps the energy high as spectators wait for the next athlete to come down the finish chute, it also provides another marketing opportunity for your sponsors to spread the word about their product or services. Plus, everyone likes free stuff, right?
Music is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s another important part of the overall experience. We don’t think there was a moment during the 11-o’clock-hour when at least half the crowd wasn’t singing along to whatever classic throwback song was blasting through the speakers. It kind of makes you forget you got up at 4:30 that morning and still haven’t even taken a nap.
Finally, imagine trotting down the red carpet toward the finish line after 16-plus exhausting hours of racing to be greeted by Jan Frodeno and Anne Haug, this year’s winners. IRONMAN is one of the only sporting events where the pros are on the same course as everyday age groupers. And despite finishing nine hours earlier and being the newly crowned champs, they willingly choose to put off their own post-race recovery and come out to support their fellow competitors, placing finisher medals around their necks and offering words of congratulations for the hard-won effort.